MD/PhD: Is it Right for You?

August 4, 2015

A few weeks ago, OITE hosted NIH’s Graduate & Professional School Fair. One of the sessions focused on MD/PhD programs and how to decide whether it is the right program for you. If you missed it, the presentation can be found online.

The goal of most MD/PhD programs is to create physician-scientists who aim to spend about 80% of their time on research and 20% of their time on clinical care. Most MD/PhD programs are training you to enter research-oriented careers. If you have no interest in research, an MD/PhD might not be the best fit for you. Remember also that MD physicians can conduct research and many MDs pursue research fellowships during their training. Many MD/PhD applicants falsely believe that they will spend about half of their time in the lab and half of their time in the clinic. This is not true until maybe fifteen or so years into your career.

So, how can you decide? First and foremost, allow yourself ample time to gather information in order to make this decision. Before undertaking any further education, it is extremely important for you to consider your own interests and career plans.

Is doing translational research and making discoveries really important to you? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward an MD/PhD. Are you more drawn to basic research and the idea of running a lab within the biological science field? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward a PhD. Or maybe you are most interested in working with people in a clinical setting? If so, an MD or other medical training program might be the best fit for your long-term career plans.

Many prospective applicants wonder whether an MD/PhD is worth it for them. Some big considerations are the financial and time commitments. On one hand, an MD/PhD program is longer and generally takes seven to eight years to complete. However, on the upside, they are generally pretty well-funded. Another consideration is the level of competition. Medical school is difficult to get into and MD/PhD programs are even tougher. There are approximately 20,000 MD students and 600 MD/PhD students. These statistics aren’t meant to deter, but rather to highlight that MD/PhD students are a unique group. It is important to be focused yet realistic. Ultimately, your path will be decided through a mix of your interests, motivations and aptitudes.

The AAMC has a lot of resources about MD/PhD programs and they have even compiled a list of frequently asked questions. It is definitely worth checking out here. However, it can often be helpful to talk through your options with mentors or advisors. Do informational interviews with people who have an MD/PhD to see if this would be the right fit for you. If you are at the NIH, you can also meet with medical/graduate school advisors or career counselors within OITE.

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Personal Statements: Your Portrait in 5,000 Characters or Less

October 20, 2014

Have you ever taken to the task of trying to put on paper what is special, unique, distinctive and impressive about you and your life story? Well, if you are applying to graduate and/or medical school, you soon will in the form of a personal statement.

Personal statements are a standard part of the application and they give you the chance to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Often times, you are given a somewhat general and vague prompt to tell the committee about yourself and how their program fits into your longer term career goals. This type of prompt gives you much more flexibility. Other applications, however, might ask you to answer a specific question, or they may even require that you answer three to four different types of questions in shorter essay forms. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft any personal statement:

FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
If you are unclear about length requirements, then double check! Brevity is often preferred so make sure each line is clear and concise. Each school/program is a little bit different and it behooves you to make sure you are following the directions and answering the prompts perfectly for that specific program. This means tailoring each essay/answer for every school you are applying to!

CREATE YOUR NARRATIVE
How did you become interested in this field? What have you done to confirm this decision as your next step? Have you overcome any challenges or obstacles during this process? What skills/personal characteristics have been highlighted through your experiences?

Most people prefer to be told information through a story rather than reading a rote list of qualifications, so be sure to demonstrate your skills through concrete experiences in the form of anecdotes.

DON’T BE TOO PERSONAL
Sure, you are writing a personal statement but it shouldn’t be too personal, especially if you write about a topic that would make you uncomfortable to talk about in person. Writing about a topic alone at your laptop can be very different than speaking about that same topic in a room full of strangers (i.e., the admissions committee interview). Many times we see applicants who are shocked to be asked about something they wrote about in their personal statement. If you write about it, then be prepared to be asked follow up questions. Therefore, use your best judgment about your own comfort level, but remember to be judicious in what you share.

FIND YOUR ANGLE
First impressions exist on paper too! Your first paragraph is often the most important – you will either pull the reader in or bore them. Concentrate on making your first paragraph as strong as it can be. If a theme emerges that you can sustain throughout each paragraph, then great; however, don’t feel beholden to this either.

REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE
The person reading your document has most likely read hundreds of applications before yours. Applicants forget that faculty read these and are looking more for professionalism than cute stories. Try your best to avoid clichés that will make your personal statement blur together with the stack of other applicants. Clichéd statements such as, “I want to go to medical school because I like science and helping people,” are much too vague. Be as specific as you can – your reason for pursuing graduate/medical school should emerge as the logical conclusion from your detailed experiences.

GOOD GRAMMAR IS KEY
Remember basic writing tenets like using strong, active verbs and avoiding run-on sentences. It can be helpful to use spell check and to read aloud for errors like noun/verb agreement. Try to also avoid using colloquial language like “cool” too much. You want your personality to come out, but you also want to present the most polished, professional version of yourself that you can.

There isn’t one correct way to write a personal statement, especially since it should be representative of your personality, intellect and cumulative experience. For graduate school, you focus on a concise description of your past research experiences followed by a specific linking of how that relates to your interest in that specific program. The same is true for medical school, but you are highlighting a combination of both your research and clinical experiences. Take some time to be introspective during the drafting process, but be sure to seek advice and input from family, friends, colleagues, mentors and the OITE.

***
Some helpful videos to check out:

What Admissions Directors Think About Getting Into Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=9685&bhcp=1

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=11108&bhcp=1

Graduate School Overview:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=12745&bhcp=1


Medical School Interviews

August 6, 2014

The season for medical school interviews is quickly approaching. If you have completed your secondary medical school application and been offered an interview, then congratulations! Schools don’t typically bring you in for an interview unless they are strongly considering your candidacy.

Bearing this in mind, many times the interview is more about your fit with the program rather than your scores and credentials. Schools use an interview to evaluate your professionalism, maturity, and personality. They want to hear in your words – spoken not written – what your motivation is in pursuing medicine.

Effective preparation is critical to the success of your interview.
Here are some things you should know before going to each interview:

  • What type of interviewing format does the school use?
    Schools may do traditional, in-person, one-on-one interviews; Skype interviews; group interviews; or even a mix of them all. Find out more about your school’s format by looking at their Web site and/or asking the admissions coordinator. You can also find information about the interview style and format for each school on The Student Doctor Network.
  • Will it be an open file or closed file interview?
    In an open file interview, the interviewer may have read your whole application or just parts of it. The interviewer could also be reading your file for the first time during the interview. In a closed file interview, your interviewer has not seen any part of your application.
  • Do they do Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI)?
    In an MMI, there are generally six to ten stations. You go around and have about two minutes to read a scenario based question. These tend to focus on situational and/or ethical dilemmas. You are then given six to eight minutes to answer in a way that demonstrates your logic and creative problem solving skills.

Once you understand the format for the interview, you anticipate (or plan!) how you will respond to potential interview questions.
Here are a few groups of sample questions to think about:

Basic
* What experiences have most motivated you to pursue medicine?
* What concerns you about medical school and a residency program?
* How have you tested your commitment to pursue medicine?

Behavioral
* Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership.
*What was the most stressful situation you have faced to date; how did you handle it?
*Walk me through an experience where you made a mistake. How did you fix it?

Traditional
*Tell me about yourself.
* Why did you choose this school?
*What are your three strongest qualities?
*What is the most important thing you would want to convey to the admission committee?

There are many, many more possible interview questions you could be asked! While you will never be able to fully anticipate each question, it can be helpful to review lists of interview questions and begin thinking about how you would frame your answers. To prepare for behavioral questions, you might reflect on personal interactions/situations in your past, considering how you might frame them as stories and what personal characteristics they demonstrate.

Starting on August 18th, the OITE is offering group medical school mock interview sessions to help you prepare. A total of seventeen sessions has been scheduled over the subsequent three weeks. If you are part of the intramural program, you can attend ONE session in order to practice your responses and learn from not only your peers but a facilitator as well.


Preparing for the Application Season

June 3, 2013

Regardless of whether you are planning on applying to Graduate School or Professional school, a successful application requires preparation.  If you remember one word from this post, remember “Early.”  Take your exams (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) early.  Get your letters of recommendation lined up early.  Write your personal statement early.  Have someone look over your materials early.  Submit your applications early.  When you get an interview, show up early.

For those applying to graduate school:

You will want to have your GRE taken by the end of August or beginning of September.  This means you need to start studying now.  In particular, you need to go back and review your high school math.  If you don’t use, you lose it.  The chances are that you haven’t used much of what will be on the test in your four (or more) years of undergrad.  You need to take practice exams…lots of them.  Much of successful test taking is being comfortable and familiar with the format.  Reading about the format is not the same as practicing it.

So why do you need to get your GRE done so early?  So you can know whether or not to retake the exam.  If you are unsure whether your scores are strong enough for a particular program, ask the Director of that program.  Unlike Medical School, these programs are trying to recruit you.  Most of the time, the program directors will respond directly to your e-mail asking about the strength of your application.   Writing in with your scores early shows that you are prepared and organized.  Writing in late, shows just the opposite.

For those applying to professional schools:  This specific material is written for Medical School applications, but the principles apply to all professional school applications.

Submit your AMCAS as soon as possible (note, that is another way to say “Early”).  Ideally, you want to submit it with in two weeks of the opening. Do NOT wait for your MCATs.  You can always add more schools later depending on where your scores make you most competitive.  Your odds of acceptance decrease the later you submit your application.  You simply do not look prepared if your application comes in right before the terminal deadline.  Also, medical schools review applications in waves.  The sooner your application is in, the fewer competitors you have for the most number of invitations.

Once your applications are in, pay attention to your e-mail.  Even if you are on vacation, check it daily.  You want to get your secondaries turned around and back to the schools quickly.  You need to show that you are eager to get in and that you are organized enough to turn things around quickly.  If your secondary sits in your inbox for a week while you are relax on vacation, you look eager to relax on vacation and not attend medical school.

For all applicants:

Nothing is as valuable as face-to-face interactions with representatives of the schools you are applying to.  If you are in the Washington D. C. area, the NIH hosts a “Graduate and Professional School Fair” on July 17 in Bethesda.  This is really a first chance to meet admissions officers and make a strong impression.  There will be 153 programs in attendance to meet with postbacs and students as well as informational sessions geared toward specific disciplines such as med schools, dental school, pharmacy school, psychology programs, PhD programs in biomedical sciences.  If you are in the area, this really is an opportunity you do not want to miss.


Your Medical and Dental School Application Plan

January 31, 2013

It’s the end of January, which means if you plan to go to medical or dental school in August 2014, you need to start the process now.  You’re thinking to yourself, “What?  Most schools don’t have application deadlines until October, or even November.  Why are we talking about applications now?”  That’s a great question, and a simple one to answer: Getting into medical or dental school takes time and planning.

To keep from being overwhelmed or from missing an important deadline (when is your MCAT or DAT test date?) you need to create a schedule, complete with a calendar of important dates and deadlines.  OITE has put together a basic schedule that you can use to create your own, more detailed one.  The first step in creating your schedule is to go to the OITE Online Resources page and download the “Medical School Application Schedule for Admission in August 2014.” While you are on the OITE Online Resources page, take a look at the other resources OITE offers to help you with the application process.

Now that you have the OITE schedule, contact your undergraduate institution’s pre-professional advising office. Pre-professional advising offices offer a wide variety of services to assist you in getting your application together, and ensuring it is as professional as possible.  Contact your office, and let them know you are applying this year, and make sure you incorporate any of their deadlines into your schedule.

Your next step is visiting the American Medical College Application Service, or AMCAS, website.  AMCAS is a non-profit application service provided by the American Association of Medical Colleges.  You create an account, complete an online application, and select which medical schools you want to receive a copy of your application.  You create one single application and AMCAS provides that application to each school.  For those of you interested in Dental school, the American Dental Education Association has a similar service called the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS).

Most US medical and dental schools only accept applications through AMCAS or AADSAS. Visit the AMCAS or the AADSAS website to learn about the process.  Enter into your schedule deadlines for when you plan to complete the different parts of the application.  After you complete and submit your application it can take up to 6 weeks of processing before it can be sent to your schools.  You should plan to have all your application materials ready for submission to AMCAS or AADSAS in early June. That way, if your top choice school has an early application deadline, you will not miss it.

Finally, take advantage of the seminars and other resources OITE offers.  The Application Schedule for Admission in August 2014 includes the dates of workshops on writing personal statements and filling out applications.  You can also arrange an appointment with the OITE’s pre-professional advisor.

Don’t procrastinate and try to cram the entire application process into a single month.  Instead, build a calendar of deadlines and milestones that break up the application process into small, achievable steps.